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Kneehigh theatre and the art of the app

Kneehigh Rambles app
The Rambles app, which Kneehigh has developed in connection with its live work

A mobile app is a digital platform – like any other stage it should hold up your art, not work against it, say the Cornish company’s Charlotte Bond and Chloe Rickard in The Guardian Culture Professionals Network, reproduced with kind permission.

Kneehigh tell stories. Based in Cornwall, we create theatre on both epic and tiny scales and tour it regionally, nationally and internationally. One of our guiding principles is based on the words of Spanish artist Joan Miró: “In order to be truly universal, you must be truly local.”

In recent years we have developed our online communications and kept an eye on digital innovation. However, there has always been a feeling that what we are good at is making live theatre, and therefore digital platforms aren’t really for us, artistically.

Alongside touring, we have been developing our Connections programme, which aims to “engage creatively with communities through event and adventure” and (crucially) encompasses artist development in Cornwall. So in 2010, we commissioned writer and storyteller Anna Maria Murphy to deliver a project of her choosing.

Inspired by the story of Mary Kelynak, a 84-year-old local fishwife who walked 300 miles from Cornwall to London, desperate to see a London exhibition, Anna decided that she wanted to walk the roads less travelled of Cornwall. She would invite guests to walk with her, meet people along the way, and collect stories.

The project was successful and we have extended and developed it over the past three years. In her own words, Anna “wildly exaggerates” the stories she’s collected, creating narratives that are entertaining, surprising and often moving – like modern day fairy tales.

Together the stories create a sort of ‘living map’ of Cornish areas and we have found that they are an incredibly effective way of engaging non-theatre going communities in local settings. Anna has told the stories back to the people she collected them from; we have published them in little books; and last year we dramatised some of them to create Kneehigh Rambles, a show we performed in village halls and for free at local festivals and within targeted communities.

In September 2012, we went along to an app development workshop run by Calvium to demonstrate its platform, AppFurnace, which was also used in the development of the Guardian’s own Street Stories. With this tool, it’s fairly easy to build an app that uses the GPS in your phone to trigger audio files when you approach a specified location.

By placing Anna’s stories on a map and allowing people to listen to them exactly where they were first collected, we potentially had a new and artistically exciting way of presenting the stories to a wider audience. We imagined that using this app would be like going on a walk with Anna herself.

Perranporth was chosen as the area to focus on because some of our favourite stories were from there. It also has one of the most beautiful sections of cliff paths in Cornwall, an epic beach, bags of history, and a thriving local community as well as attracting a lot of tourists. We worked with Calvium, alongside Anna, a sound designer (who added music and other voices to the stories) and a graphic designer, and had a prototype to test pretty quickly.

Because we had three shows on the road over Christmas, the project wasn’t completed as quickly as we first thought. This is a potential challenge for most arts organisations wanting to delve into digital – simply finding the time, let alone resources, to explore and experiment is increasingly difficult when everyone is already at full stretch.

But last Saturday we launched our free app in Perranporth. Many of the people who feature in the stories were there, including Tom, who owned the first wetsuit in Perran and remembers surfing on coffin lids, and ‘Electric Chris’ who stuck his finger in a light bulb socket and was never quite the same again.

In GPS mode in Perranporth, the app successfully fuses a live and digital artistic experience. In ‘armchair’ mode, people from anywhere in the world can listen to the stories for free and from the comfort of their own home, which makes the experience (as Miró said) both truly local and truly international.

Most importantly, this app connects to our live work, delivering a flavour of the place we make it in to our national and international audiences. We are also really excited that our theatre audience might not be the only ones who use the app – we’re experimenting with marketing the experience to locals and tourists: families, walkers, surfers and young people looking for new and different things to do.

Apple recently announced its 50 billionth app download so we know there is a growing market. This first app was relatively easy for us to make as we already had great content, even if developed in more traditional ways. At the end of the day, an app is a digital platform – and like any other stage, it should hold up your art so that your audience can see and hear it.

Charlotte Bond is general manager and project manager, and Chloe Rickard is communications coordinator at Kneehigh – follow the theatre on Twitter @WeAreKneehigh

Guardian Culture Pros logoThis content was published originally by Guardian Professional and shared with their & Kneehigh’s kind permission. Thanks!